Event Spotlight: California Dreaming and Other Bucket List Destinations on the West Coast

In May we shared some local knowledge about flying on the East Coast in places like the Washington, DC Special Flight Restricted Area (SFRA) the Hudson River Corridor, and the Chicago Skyline. This month we fly cross country and explore California and some other West Coast destinations that you’ll want to add to your logbook.

In this month’s Club Spotlight, Richard Smith from the Flying Particles, based at Livermore Municipal Airport (LVK), took us on a San Francisco Bay Tour. Their members do a lot more than local sightseeing flights. It’s no surprise to see one of the club’s eight aircraft traveling all over the west – flying to Southern California, or north to some out of the way locations for a day trip or weekend overnighter. Some West Coast bucket list destinations include Catalina Island; Sedona, Arizona; Death Valley and Monument Valley; as well as some lesser known but equally scenic destinations. 

“I like traveling to the places that would be a really long car trip but are perfectly doable day trips in the airplane,” Richard said. “A lot of the coastal towns north of San Francisco are like that – Shelter Cove, Crescent City, Portuna. Those kinds of places are a really long haul to drive, but a short flight.”

Shelter Cove Airport (0Q5) is about 175 miles north of Livermore in the middle of what is known as the Lost Coast because the shoreline around there is very rugged and cliff like. The roads are all inland because the shoreline is so inhospitable. From the Bay area it would probably be a six- to eight-hour drive, but flying time is an hour and I half.

Another spot that Richard loves to fly to is Trinity Center (O86). It’s in the mountains to the west of Mount Shasta and Lake Shasta. “The airport is super scenic, it’s right on Trinity Lake, which is a man-made, dammed-up river,” he said. “You have to go on a clear day. Don’t even try it if you haven’t had some mountain flying training experience.” 

In calm winds, it’s no big deal to fly into the airport, which is next to the river, although you do need to watch for deer. “When the wind is blowing, it can get pretty crazy because it’s a narrow river canyon,” Richard said.

There’s a sizable notch in the canyon on the north end of the runway, and the wind can push you into the canyon. “If you’ve done a lot of mountain flying, your brain is automatically in the mode of I’m not looking at the wind sock. I’m looking at the trees, the water, you’re looking at everything to see what the wind is going to do,” he said. “That kind of training is useful for most of the mountain airports in California.”

Catalina Island

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to land on an aircraft carrier, Catalina Island (AVX) is definitely a bucket list destination. Richard said it is as popular for pilots from other parts of the country as it is for local pilots. It’s only a 25-mile journey across the Pacific from the California coast to what is known as the airport in the sky. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful place to fly into as long as the weather is good. It’s super scenic,” he said.

Most clubs and flight schools require a checkout from a CFI before you can fly to Catalina on your own. You go from the busy SoCal TRACON “to all of a sudden you’re a couple of miles offshore and it’s just you, they’re not talking to anyone else,” Richard said. “It gets really quiet. You can really focus on and enjoy the scenery.” 

There are some published procedures and recommendations that you should review before making the trip, but Richard said it’s pretty straight forward and isn’t a complex flight.

However, the 3,000-foot runway sits atop the island with cliffs at the end and is crowned in the middle so you can’t see the other end of the runway. Runway 4 has a 2 percent downslope, so Runway 22 is preferred for landings and Runway 4 for takeoffs. Straight in approaches are not allowed and it is recommended that pilots overfly the airport to make sure it is clear of animals and people.

“When you’re flying it looks like it’s going to be way too short,” Richard said. “The tricky spot, especially if you’re using Runway 22, is the cliff drops off pretty sharply there.”

On a calm day there is nothing to worry about. But “if the wind is favoring 22, you get a fairly decent down draft right off the approach end of the runway where the cliff is,” he said. “If you do all the briefing and prep for it, it’s the thing you are expecting. If you don’t brief, and you’re a new pilot, it’s can be easy to get into some trouble.”

Something else to be aware of is because the terrain drops off sharply on either side, you get some clouds hanging off either end of the runway.

There is a $35 landing fee paid to the conservancy that owns the island and there are shuttles that will take you from the airport on the top of the hill to town. “It’s definitely a fun spot to fly into,” Richard said. “Just do it.”


Another small airport sitting atop a hill with cliffs at either end of the runway is in Sedona, Arizona. Instead of being surrounded by the blue hues of the Pacific Ocean like Catalina, the Sedona Airport (SEZ) sits atop a mesa surrounded by red and orange rock formations and green brush.

The surroundings present some of the most beautiful views you’ll ever see coming into an airport, but don’t let that beauty distract you. There can be dangerous updrafts at end of runway, making the approach a little bumpy coming over the edge of Mesa. The weather is almost always clear, but with an elevation of 4,831 feet and average temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees in the summer, density altitude is a serious concern, even with a runway more than 5,000 feet in length.

The views are stunning, as the terrain is like no other place in Arizona, making this another bucket list destination. And while you’re in the area, head about 40 miles to the east to see Meteor Crater – one of the most visible landmarks you can see from the air. Similarly, if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, check out Crater Lake in Oregon, which is about 50 miles northeast of Medford.

Moab and Monument Valley

Richard hasn’t been to Sedona yet, “but it’s definitely on my to do list,” he said. “The place I want to hit up before Sedona is Monument Valley. We went to Arches last summer. It’s a three or four-hour flight [from Livermore].” The airport is 15 miles north of Moab and the National Park is right there. “As far as access to National Parks go, it’s really awesome,” he said.

The Columbia Aviation Association (CAA) often does fly outs to Monument Valley (UT25) in Utah (see the March 2024 Club Spotlight). They will fly to Goulding’s, a private airstrip. You need to go online and fill out a “fly at your own risk” form and bring a copy of your insurance, as well as tie downs. Field elevations is more than 5,000 feet and density altitude is a concern with a runway that is 3,500 feet long.

Gouldings has a long history with Hollywood. “That’s where John Wayne and all the movie folks would stay while making movies in Monument Valley,” CAA member and past President Steve Swan said.

While the hiking and history on the ground may be interesting, Steve said, “It’s a great place to go fly.” That’s because the rock formations rising from the desert are simply breathtaking.

Death Valley

“There is another spot in California that is a spectacular place to fly, but definitely requires training. At the Southern end of the Owens Valley is Death Valley National Park, and there are two GA fields in the park,” Richard said. “They’re a little beat up but it’s such a fantastic place to fly.”

One airport is Stovepipe Wells (L09), and it has an elevation of 25 feet, while Furnace Creek (L06) sits at minus 210 feet, making it the lowest airport in the United States. The runways at both airports are listed as being in poor condition and pilots should bring their own tie downs and something to cover your instrument panel to protect it from the sun. 

The original airport at Furnace Creek was opened in 1926 and had two gravel runways. Today, there is a single runway about a mile west of the original airport. It sits in the middle of the largest National Park in the United States and there are plenty of interesting geological features to see if you are hiking or camping in the area. You can read more about it in this AOPA article.

“It’s an amazing landscape,” Richard said. “Seeing it from the air gives you such a unique perspective because you can see the evidence of the floods that happened. The color of the dirt is different everywhere and you can see the visible evidence of the things that have happened over the decades or maybe centuries. Everything else is covered with vegetation of some sort you don’t really see it and that is very evident when you’re flying over Death Valley. It’s beautiful. It’s one of those fantastic things that many people don’t do but they should.” 

Whether you’re heading to the heights of some mountain passes in Northern California, Washington, or Oregon; flying into table top airports like Catalina and Sedona, or descending into the desert of Death Valley, there are plenty of interesting and beautiful places to fly to on the West Coast. These are just a few suggestions to get members thinking about the natural wonders and interesting destinations in your area to help inspire more members to get out and fly more, and fly safe.

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